March 23, 2012        A publication of Thursday Review, copyright 2012

There are now two competing narratives for the Republican Party.

The first is traditional and straightforward: Mitt Romney's back-to-back wins in Puerto Rico and Illinois were substantial and convincing, even among those voters who described themselves as conservative. Romney has crossed the threshold in the delegate count and has now accumulated over half of the 1144 delegates needed to secure the nomination in Tampa. He has reached the tipping point, and the time-honored gravitational forces within the GOP will now take command. It is no longer a two-man race, if in fact it ever once was.

The second view is more complex and requires that one step away from the daily and hourly news feed. In this view, Romney's delegate count is irrelevant: the combined forces of the insurrection have neither acknowledged defeat, nor have they yielded a single inch of forward ground. They give the governor his due: he won fair and square in Puerto Rico and Illinois, and he won by outspending all other candidates by five to one. But the convention is a long way off, and there are still plenty of states in which voters have not made their choice (over half, in fact). All Rick Santorum has to do is deny Romney his ability grasp that magic number. Then, in Tampa, let the brokering begin.

This secondary view of the GOP race is in the clear minority.

Indeed, at this point, things seem to be going swimmingly for Mitt Romney. If he can deflect the conversation away from the fact that he may still lose a few upcoming contests (notably Louisiana this weekend), Romney can finally settle into the traditional role as the de facto Republican nominee and redirect his own energies to what he views as the true two-man race--Romney versus Obama. And this week's high profile endorsements from GOP heavyweights Jeb Bush and Jim DeMint have helped to burnish his status as the undisputed front-runner around whom the party statesmen are coalescing.

It is therefore difficult to resist the power and simplicity of the first school of thought. Romney, it seems, always follows a setback with a success, and up to now his gains have been only incremental. Illinois is his vindication and validation, enabling him perhaps to take longer, more confident strides. He has slain all the known dragons.

Of course this is familiar territory. We've all seen the movie Groundhog Day. Wisecracking meteorologist Bill Murray wakes up every morning--on the same morning--doomed to repeat his days in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, forever trapped in a timeless, endless loop. Mitt Romney's original strategic plan did not include spending his days this winter and spring stuck in this condition of déjà vu. The weather may be unseasonably warm this year, but for Romney this has been one bleak, never-ending winter.

Only two weeks ago the conventional view of the arithmetic was that as long as Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum remained divided, essentially keeping the insurrection split and weakened, Romney could coast numerically to victory. By this reasoning--and I was one of those who saw it that way--it no longer worked to Romney's advantage if Gingrich dropped out. Gingrich had become an unwitting ally of Romney, syphoning off votes from Santorum and depriving Santorum the opportunity to face Romney in a one-on-one fight for the heart and soul of the GOP.

But then an odd thing happened: even with Santorum and Gingrich campaigning actively and vigorously in the south, dividing the insurrectionists, Santorum still managed to win in Alabama and Mississippi, Gingrich still managed a modest second-place, and Romney ended up coming in third place in all but his safest green zones--in the larger cities and affluent suburbs. Combine the total votes for Santorum and Gingrich in nearly every county, and the anti-Romney votes continue outstrip the pro-Romney votes. The widely discussed Romney surge in the south failed to materialize.

Fast forward the tape. Romney has won convincingly in both Puerto Rico and Illinois, walking away with the lion's share of the delegates. In Puerto Rico Romney won by substantial margins, besting Santorum in a territory which seemed up for grabs only weeks earlier--and in a place where Santorum actively campaigned. In Illinois, at least according to some of the exit polls, the former Massachusetts governor even won respectable penetration into the marketplace of voters who describe themselves as very conservative. This has been interpreted by many analysts as proof that Romney has finally gained the acceptance of some of those GOP voters previously suspicious of the governor's conservative credentials, or lack thereof.

But Illinois conservatives and Illinois Tea Partiers are not the same as conservatives and Tea Partiers in other parts of the country. Illinois has become a very liberal place, largely abandoned by the GOP for national purposes. Romney's victory in Illinois bears a closer resemblance to his wins in Massachusetts and Nevada, where he felt little threat on his right flank by the other candidates, and where Romney could keep his message essentially centrist.

For Romney to declare victory based on Illinois--morally or numerically--is to continue to underestimate the depth of the anti-Romney mood among the insurrectionists elsewhere. Throughout the primary and caucus season Santorum has benefitted greatly from this pattern of misjudgment. One need merely look closely--again--at the county-by-county results in Iowa, South Carolina, Colorado, Minnesota, Missouri, and yes, even Florida (where Romney won) to see the depth of the divide and the animosity toward Romney from some of the GOP faithful.

Romney won plenty of votes from people who defined themselves as "conservative" in many parts of south and central Florida, but clearly those self-identified conservatives differed substantially from their counterparts in South Carolina, Missouri, Minnesota, Colorado and Alabama. Romney will not be able to bring unification to the Republican fold simply by winning in the cities and affluent exurbs. The reluctance of some GOP conservatives to embrace Romney remains a persistent numerical flaw, even in places where Romney wins.

A look at Illinois makes the issue clear. On the face of it Romney won, and won big, in a state that counts heavily in both the delegate count and in the November electoral math (though few Republicans actually expect the GOP to carry Obama's home state in the fall). Romney scored lopsided victories in the numerous population centers, winning by nearly two-to-one in places like Cook County (Romney, 57%; Santorum 26%), Du Page County (Romney, 54%; Santorum, 28%) and Lake County (56% to 28%). Romney's victories, though solid, become less dramatic as one moves away from Chicago. In these areas the gap closes to resemble Romney's traditional suburban wins throughout much of the primary season, with numbers that show Santorum following more closely. Typical of this are Rockford-Winnebago County (Romney, 43%, Santorum 37%), McHenry County (Romney, 47%; Santorum, 32%), McLean County (42% to 38%) and Champaign-Urbana (43% to 34%).

Conversely, Santorum's wide sweep of the rural parts of Illinois are also typical of the Senator's past successes in other parts of the country, and a continuation of the pattern I have frequently referred to as the Huckabee Belt. Indeed, the further one moves away from Chicago, Aurora and Springfield, the more lopsided Santorum's wins become. In many of the borderline counties between population centers, Romney wins by narrow margins. Look at St. Clair County, just across the river from St. Louis, Missouri. Here, in suburbs and exurbs east of St. Louis, Romney won, but only by about 150 votes out of over 15,000 votes cast. In some of the most rural counties in the southern and western parts of Illinois, Santorum racks up two-to-one victories.

This swath of the Huckabee Belt dovetails geographically if one adjoins similar maps in the previous primary and caucus states of Iowa and Missouri, and by extension, Kansas and Minnesota, Oklahoma and Tennessee, and so forth. This forms a heartland core of counties stretching from Lake of the Woods in Minnesota to the Gulf coast of Florida and Alabama, from Grand Junction, Colorado in the west to the Bristol Motor Speedway at the eastern end of Tennessee. If one adds the counties also won by Gingrich, the impact on the national map is even more substantial--essentially blanketing most of the mid-South and Deep South as far down as Gainesville, Florida.

A robust person could literally walk from Fargo, North Dakota to Amelia Island, Florida without touching land won by Romney. Try reversing this challenge in favor of Romney: only in Nevada, Massachusetts, Virginia and South Florida can one make a tiny fraction of this same walk without interruption. Romney has won islands and archipelagos.

Still, there is no denying Mitt Romney his due. He won a big one, and he won big. And thanks to a failure of the Santorum organization to get the required number of signatures in selected Congressional districts in Illinois, Santorum doesn't even get to walk away with he might view as his fair share of the delegates; Romney will likely win 42 delegates, and Santorum may take 12. Coupled with his total sweep of Puerto Rico, in which the governor walked away with all 20 delegates, last week was a good week for Romney. Romney crossed the halfway point in delegate acquisition and still seems strategically better at the hard game of on-the-ground organization.

So the question now making the rounds among the media chatterers is simple: given that Santorum may win big in Louisiana on Saturday, would a win there matter? Does Santorum and the insurrection have relevancy in this homestretch of primaries and caucuses? And if the insurrection does remain viable, will it do harm to the Republican Party prior to Tampa?

To answer these questions, both Gingrich and Santorum have made the same analogy often: once upon a time Ronald Reagan was a come-from-behind insurrectionist too.

Copyright 2012, Thursday Review


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